The soap opera became a staple of television in 1950s America —a period of prosperity and conservatism, when many women devoted themselves to marriage, children and the home —that mid-century “doll house” whose facade was often far more tranquil than the emotional turmoil inside.
‘FAR FROM HEAVEN’
When: Through March 13
Where: Porchlight Music Theatre atStage 773, 1225 W. Belmont
Tickets: $35 – $48
Run time: 2 hoursand 20 minutes, with one intermission
The ’50s also was a period of intense social taboos: Crossing the racial divide was often dangerous (even illegal in some places), and homosexuality was a word most often whispered, with many seeking psychiatric (or drastic hormonal) treatment to “cure” what some considered an illness.
All this is the backdrop for “Far From Heaven,” the musical by Scott Frankel (music), Michael Korie (lyrics) and Richard Greenberg (book), based on the 2002 film by Todd Haynes that starred Julianne Moore as Cathy Whitaker, an affluent Connecticut housewife, Dennis Quaid as Frank, her closeted husband, and Dennis Haysbert as Raymond Deagan, the African-American gardener with whom she develops a deep emotional connection and meeting of minds.
Produced at New York’s Playwright Horizons in 2013, the stage show (whose score is the work of the pair behind “Gray Gardens” and the upcoming “War Paint”) is now in its Chicago premiere by Porchlight Music Theatre.
First things first. In the role of Cathy, the beautiful wife and mother of two spoiled but unhappy kids —a woman who initially seems to be leading the ideal existence —Summer Naomi Smart again demonstrates her formidable acting skills (not to mention a mastering of Frankel’s often tricky, atonal score). Sheis ideally matched by the charismatic Evan Tyrone Martin (whose honeyed voice and emotional immediacy also has long been apparent) as Raymond, with Brandon Springman as the angry, continually dissembling Frank, and by a supporting cast deftly chosen by director Rob Lindley.
That said, there is something rather wooden about much of this show as it shifts uneasily between stylistic staging and realistic situations, with Greenberg’s book often stilted and stiff, and with Frankel’s sometimes droning music more keyed to modern chamber opera style than musical theater. (One example: The show’s opening song, “Autumn in Connecticut,” is a thudding twist on the rapturous Vernon Duke classic, “Autumn in New York.”)
In fact, the score is at its best in those brief moments when it turns jazzy in a Dave Brubeck sort of way. And the most believable acting is to be found in the scene in which Raymond takes Cathy to a little diner in the black part of Hartford, Conn., and the waitress, bartender and patron there make it clear they are not amused solely by means of their priceless facial expressions and body language.
The story is straightforward enough, and far from subtle. Something is very wrong in Cathy’smarriage and the source of the tension becomes clear when she discovers Frank in his office one night, having sex with a man. Stunned but desperate to save her marriage, she soldiers on as Frank agrees to see a doctor. Of course nature will ultimately have its way.
Meanwhile, Cathy’s “friends” —a group of bored wives caught up in the local social whirl —sense something is a bit off, particularly Eleanor Fine (the spot-on Bri Sudia), whose philandering husband, Stan (Brian Zane), works with Frank. And the gossip hounds really go to work when they sense the off-limits friendship between the more “open-minded” Cathy (“Negroes should have their rights”), and Raymond, the gentle, cultured widower who is raising a young daughter. Raymond is the only person with whom she feels a deep connection, aside from her unflappable housekeeper, Sybil (lovely work by Candace C. Edwards).
In a rare example of an under-decorated set, Grant Sabin’s interiors look more like an Affordable Portables display than a posh home. But Bill Morey’s costumes compensate, with Smart looking gorgeous in everything she puts on, and the rest of the cast’s winter coats a perfect evocation of upscale 1950s style.
“Far from Heaven” has its moments, and its enduring themes of race, class, sex and hints of “Mad Men”-meets-“Transparent,” carry a contemporary ring. But there is too much that is tone-deaf and forced about this show for it to fully pierce the heart.